State spells out its bid for Race to Top money

With two weeks to spare, state education officials today said they have finalized what will be included in Connecticut’s latest bid for federal Race to the Top funds: They propose to create a new office for early childhood education and better assess entering kindergarten students and the quality of preschool programs.

Stefan Pryor, the state’s new education commissioner, labeled it a “strong application” that will hopefully result in the state landing $50 million in competitive grants to pay for these initiatives.

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Liz Donohue of governor’s office explains the state’s approach as Commissioner Stefan Pryor leafs through the proposal.

“This is a real opportunity for Connecticut,” he told the State Board of Education. “It’s expanding upon what works.”

The state failed to win money in the first two rounds of the Race to the Top aimed at reforming the whole education system. That launched a wave of criticism from education advocates and even Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who was a gubernatorial candidate at the time, that the application was not bold enough and even sections were left blank.

But Pryor and Liz Donohue from Malloy’s office, said they are confident the state will win this highly-competitive grant this time around.

“We have every intention of winning this grant,” Donohue told the board of what could be a 200 to 300 page application.

One thing Pryor said he is hopeful will make the state’s application stick out is launching a system that will allow every early childhood program to be rated for quality on a three-tier scale. However, programs will not automatically be rated and will only be given a grade if they elect to participate.

Asked if all programs receiving state funding — such as private daycare providers — will be required to be rated down the road, Pryor said, “It’s a work in progress.”

Previous efforts to initiate a rating system stalled over the cost of administration and resources necessary to help centers improve their programs. The most recent attempt was in 2008. Twenty-one states have already established quality rating systems for their early education programs.

How strong the state’s proposed rating system is could determine the outcome of the state’s bid, as final guidelines released by the U.S. Department of Education last month place a strong emphasis on this rating system. About 25 percent of the state’s grade will be determined on their proposed Quality Rating System.

“We have to put a lot of eggs in that basket and make sure it’s a really good basket,” said Harriet Feldlaufer, one of the leaders for this grant at the State Department of Education.

This new state office — the Office of Early Care and Education and Child Development — is another proposal aimed at better aligning the numerous state agencies that are responsible for coordinating various aspects of early childhood education. Malloy earlier this year opposed a plan to create a new state agency, saying it went against his desire to consolidate state government.

Donohue said the plan was able to move forward because this new office will be staffed by existing employees in current agencies. The head of the office will be employed through the governor’s Office of Policy and Management.

“This is about creating a better system,” Donohue said.

Another component of the state’s plan would be assessing kindergarten students when they enter school so teachers and school officials can cater their instructions to their needs.

This new emphasis on assessments is stirring concerns over the whether a consquence will be bringing the pressures of hight-stakes testing found in higher grades down to kindergarten classrooms.

The board was assured this proposal to assess students will be strictly used to help students, not hold students back that test behind their peers.

“This data will be used to improve instruction,” said Feldlaufer. “It’s about providing better early education.”

Pryor said while he is hopeful that the state will win the $50 million needed to implement these reforms, the outcome of that application will not determine the fate of these initiatives eventually being launched in the state.

“By no means is it the last step,” he said.